Friday, February 24, 2012

Authenticity and fairytales

For a number of years I have been dreaming of illustrating the Serbian fairytales. While flipping through the books on fairytales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, Arthur Rackham or John Bauer, I would often wonder how to tackle such a challenge. A few years ago I did illustrate one Serbian fairytale for a Norwegian publisher, as a part of the collection of fairytales from all around the world. In fact I was offered to illustrate two fairytales, but due to my busy schedule at that time, I declined the second one and did only the pictures for the shorter tale. I was so eager to do this job that, instead of painting a one page and a half page illustration, which I was commissioned and paid to do, I did a double page and a one page illustration. Unfortunately, the book was never published.

As it is the case with the most of our dreams, if we dream them long enough, they will eventually come through, in one or another form. Last summer a respectable publisher from Serbia with an appropriate name Čarobna knjiga, which means Magic Book, asked me to participate in a major book project on Serbian fairytales. There are in total 11 illustrators involved in this project, the book will have 224 pages and will be published in Serbia in September this year. No doubt, a major and rather prestigious book, that is intended to set a new standard for that kind of illustrated books, as far as the Serbian market is concerned.

Due to my agreement with the publisher, I am not able to show you the finished paintings (in fact I am still very busy creating them), but I can show you some of the preliminary sketches and studies.

One of the illustrations from the Norwegian project.

You probably noticed that I did different sketches of the same character, which means that I take this task very seriously and that I am not easily satisfied with the first design. One might say that I search for something that I am apparently not able to struck instantly. The thing I am mostly concerned about at this stage of my work on this particular project is the authenticity and the national character of my designs and paintings.

When it comes to illustrating the national themes, one inevitably has to deal with the historical and ethnological authenticity. The specifics of a certain culture like traditional clothing, architecture, various artifacts, human physiognomy, landscapes, and all other things that have to express the national aspect of the story in question, suddenly become an important issue. But while it is quite obvious that one has to be as authentic and as accurate as possible in terms the costumes and props when depicting a specific historic moment , it is something quite different when you deal with fairytales, myths or legends. Although all these stories are mostly a product of fiction, never the less they are firmly rooted in a certain cultural frame. The question I have been asking myself since I have started the work on this book, is how authentic and historically accurate one has to be when dealing with a folk tale, a fairytale. It is clear that a certain doses of authenticity is required, because for instance, a knight from an English legend has to look as a proper English knight, otherwise it has not much sense to call it an English story. At the same time too much history in the fairytale pictures might kill the magic.

How did a Serbian medieval knight, or prince, looked like? How does his castle looked like, what kind of dress did he wear and what kind of designs decorated his clothes? These are quite normal questions, but the answers are not easy to find. After the mighty Ottoman Turks invaded and gradually conquered medieval Serbia and almost all of the Balkans at the beginning of 15th century, the radical and thorough change took place. In the subsequent 5 centuries of the Turkish rule much of the medieval Serbian culture was lost, destroyed and reshaped on the basis of the conqueror ‘s culture. Apart from some indications in the old manuscripts, the more or less canonized depictions on the frescos in the medieval churches , and the poetic and romantic writings in the old epic poetry, there are virtually no solid indications of what a Serbian prince and his world looked like. Generally speaking the Serbian medieval culture was primarily influenced by the Byzantine culture. But, there are indications that the Serbian rulers have imported clothes and armor from Italy and Hungary. Some Serbian kings had married west European princesses, as well as the princesses from the surrounding kingdoms, who inevitably brought some of the fashion from their native cultures, influencing to a certain degree the Serbian court. Besides, it is known that the Emperor Dušan’s personal guard consisted of the German mercenaries, who were dressed as the western soldiers and knights from that period (see the paintings of Emperor Dušan by Paja Jovanović). So, when a fairytale starts with: “Long time ago there lived a king who had three sons…”, you know that you have to place the story in the pre-Turkish times and that you have to deal with the insufficiency of the reference material.

A warrior, fresco from the 13th century church

But (fortunately there is a “but” here) we are dealing with a fairytale, which in my opinion does not have to be exactly historically accurate in terms of clothing and props (it even sounds a bit silly – a historically accurate fairytale, right?). However it is necessary to show a sufficient amount of basic elements that would suggest the national character, and to depict the rest as suggestive and imaginative as possible.
As long as we are suggesting or showing the right direction, and as long as we infuse our designs with enough imaginative and evocative material for the reader’s mind to be captured and inspired by, we are on the good road. It is all about pointing the “finger” towards the right symbols and archetypes. Our preconditioned and programed mind would do the rest.

Perhaps a good example of this can be found in the sources of inspiration that I have used while designing my King Marko, the main character from The Legend of Steel Bashaw. Because of the nature of this old tale, it is obvious that this king comes from the obscured pre-Turkish times and therefore has to reflect something that the imagination of the public will unquestionably relate to the Serbian medieval noble knight, although as I just said, nobody knows how these knights exactly looked like.

The sources of inspiration I used while designing King Marko were:

- Blue trousers are inspired by the paintings of Paja Jovanović.

- The design of his breastplate was inspired by the old coins that were found at the archeological location of the Russian city of Novgorod.

- King Marko wears a traditional Serbian shoes, that probably did not exist in the middle ages, and if they did exist, a king would surely NOT wear them.

- He wears a yellow tunic under his armor that comes from the famous Rembrandt’s painting “The Night watch”

- The general design of his armor is inspired by the relative complexity of the armor of the Byzantine warriors/knights.

- Marko’s exaggeratedly long mustache indicate a feature on the man’s face that was so common in the Balkans in the past. My grandfather, for instance, who was born at the end of the 19th century, for the most of his adult life had a long mustache. As an old man (he died when he was 96) he looked like an iconic bard from the Serbian epics.

That’s it. Until now, I haven’t heard anybody complaining about King Marko not being authentic enough.

So, my conclusion is that as long as the sum of the details and symbols in our designs and compositions points out towards the right direction and brings the desirable associations and emotions to the surface of the reader’s/spectator’s mind, without damaging the magic, and maintaining and supporting the required illusion (the suspension of disbelief), we are achieving our goal as illustrators of this kind of stories. After all, as illustrators, fantasy illustrators in particular, we are a kind of dream makers. At its best, we help create dreams that make up the foundations of reality.

Dream well


  1. Hi Petar - A very fabulous post this time , filled with amazing drawings and interesting discussion. Great work !

  2. Very inspiring post Petar. I am currently working on an image of Lady Godiva's ride through Coventry and even though this was most liekly not an actual historic event, the history and look is important. You have given me a few things to think about with your post.


    1. Hi Mark - I am glad to hear that my post is having a positive effect on what you are doing now. Thanks and good luck!

  3. Excellent post Petar, I specially enjoyed your description for conceptualization and reference research, this is one of the parts I enjoy the most of the creation process. And your sketches, oh man, your sketches!

  4. great post I'd love to know what epics you will be illustrating, if you can of course? Is there any Serbian fairy tales that might be widely known. I'm not aware of any that I know of as Serbian in origin but I'd love fairy tales and am always keen on reading more from as many cultures as possible. Are there any good Serbian Fairy tales you would suggest for someone unfamiliar with Serbian tropes and folklore?

    1. Hi JM - You can always start by reading The Legend of Steel Bashaw, in case you did not, although it is not an original folk tale, but my own retelling of the very popular Serbian folk tale named Baš Čelik. By the way, in 1916 Edmud Dulac, a famous French/English illustrator illustrated this fairytale. Another known Serbian fairytale called Golden Apple and the Nine Peahens, was illustrated around 1916 by another famous English illustrator Arthur Rackham. In 1914 they published in England an illustrated book on Serbian folk tales and epics in English. I have a Dutch version and, as far as I know, the book was not reprinted since then, except for the facsimile edition of this book that was published in Serbia a few years ago. I guess you can find a copy on the internet.
      I have three tales to illustrate for the upcoming collection of Serbian fairytales and I will reveal their titles in a few months.
      Thank you!

    2. JM, if you are interested in Serbian fairy tales,you have to watch a cult Yugoslav movie The Magic Sword(Čudotvorni mač)-wonderful adaptation of the most famous Serbian fairy tale-Baš Čelik.You can easily find it on the net with English subtitles.
      Here is the scene with a witch from Petar’s scetches:

  5. Great article Petar. And the drawing of the old woman with the heads on the fence is just crazy good. The pencil work in it wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Poštovani g. Petre,

    Impresioniran sam Vašim radovima, pogotovo što tražim ilustratora za naslovnicu moje nove knjigu "Zmaj i Ždral" (Mit o Milošu Obiliću), a koliko vidim Vi imate već ponešto na tu temu! Ukoliko Vas zanima taj vid saradnje, potražite me na Fejsbuku, da ne bih ovako javno ostavljao svoje podatke.

    Srdačan pozdrav,
    Aleksandar Tešić

  7. Hvala, Aleksandre! Ako vas interesuje neka vrsta saradnje, molim vas da mi se javite na meil. Ne koristim Facebook.

  8. It's so great to see your pencil work in addition to your paintings. Your work with graphite is every bit as impressive as your skill with a brush.

    I also love how you search for the image through multiple sketches of the same scene. A wonderful example of this is your revised sketch of the old woman with the heads on the stakes. The first sketch is brilliant, but in the second one, you really captured the feeling of death and decay in the expressions of the decapitated heads. It adds so much to the image. Wonderful and inspiring. I must spend as much time working on my paintings as I do in front of my computer screen staring at yours. Very well done!


    1. Thank you for this nice comment, Phil!

    2. Petre,sjajna vest! Konačno da se kod nas neki izdavač odluči na takav poduhvat.Koliko se sećam, pre nekih desetak godina je izašla slična knjiga ali manjeg obima i sa samo jednim ilustratorom(čini mi se da je Bob radio crteže), ali ovako nešto ambiciozno se radi prvi put.Da li možeš da kažeš koji su još crtači angažovani za rad na knjizi?

      Inače,obožavao sam kao klinac tvoju Esmeraldu u Stripoteci (nisam mogao da verujem da je naš čovek crtao taj strip) i uopšte mi nije jasno zašto ti redakcija nije omogućila da uradiš ceo serijal kad si bio najbolji strip crtač u tadašnjoj Jugoslaviji.Ja sam uvek najviše cenio realistički crtež, pa plus što su tvoji radovi imali i šmek stila Rosinskog(naročito Kanoo),a naši tadašnji autori su više forsirali stil crtanja koji je bio bliži underground stripu kao Kordej koji ja nikad nisam gotivio.Oduševio sam se kad sam pre neku godunu naleteo na tvoj blog i video tvoje slike iz naše epike.Velika je stvar što je jedan od najboljih svetskih fantasy slikara Srbin i što je tako majstorski na platnu oživeo junake naše mitologije i istorije.
      Divovi iz Orfelinove trilogije su stvarno bili moćni i zato jedva čekam da vidim šta si spremio za Čarobnu knjigu.

      Što se tiče ilustrovanih izdanja naših bajki u inostranstvu,pa evo sad sam od tebe prvi put saznao da ih je bilo.Ja znam jedino za američku knjigu pesama o Kraljeviću Marku koje su u toj varijanti pretočene u priče.Ova Vila Ravijojla je odatle.

      Da li si video slike Nebojše Đuranovića i šta misliš o njima?

    3. Hvala najlepse na poduzem komentaru i na komplimentima!
      Sto se tice imena ilustratora koji su ukljuceni u rad na pomenutoj zbirci srpskih bajki, evo nekoliko njih: Dragan Bibin, Vanja Todoric, Geto, Aleksa Gajic... izmedju ostalih.

      Nisam znao za postojanje americke knjige pesama (u prozi) o Marku Kraljevicu. Hvala na informaciji! Pokusacu da nekako dodjem do nje.

      Da, video sam slike Nebojse Djuranovica, a znam ga i licno. Nebojsa je izvrstan slikar.

      Jos jednom, hvala na komentaru!

  9. all the best
    Spectrum 19 Award Nominees

  10. Every time I look at your art work, I am reminded that fairy tale characters don't have to be stylized, or cutesy; rather they can be interesting, and a little frightening. Thanks for the constant inspiration.

  11. Што се тиче националног идентитета, постоји један форум ( који се бави свесловенском баштином, па тиме и српском, могао би вам бити од помоћи при нужним референцама. Мени лично прво што је упало у очи јесте то, што нацртани лик нема физичке особине, тј. црте лица, које налазимо у Срба (тзв. динарски тип). Он јесте типичан лик хероја, али ако вам је национални идентитет тренутно главна задаћа, сматрам да неби било лоше позабавити се и том чињеницом. Што се тиче српског витеза, српски витез је по ономе што знамо био тешки оклопник, веће силе. Цар Душан је имао обичај увести у витезе само оне који су били од одређене снаге а уједно и висине, неки тврде изнад 2 метра код своје личне гарде. Сила српске војске није лежала у дисциплини чете, него у јунаштву појединих бораца, нјихово примарно оружје на коњу бијаше копље, а на ногама дворуки мач. То је уједно вриједи и за цијелу хришћанску Европу тога доба. Турска војска је наиме баш због те чињенице и покорила српску војску, која је била трома за разлику од дисциплиноване брзопокретне турске, као што можемо прочитати у хроникама Константина Михаиловића. Извињавам се на подугом тексту, веома цијеним ваш рад.